A ferry is docked at the port in Calais, France.
A ferry is docked at the port in Calais, France. - 
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Bob Moon: As contentious as it is here at home, controlling who crosses the border is just as big of an issue over in Europe. Latest estimates showed there are anywhere from around 2 [million] to 4 million undocumented migrants, and over 1.5 million refugees living in the European Union. And although annual numbers are down due to the economic downturn, tens of thousands more people are smuggled in every year. Christopher Werth has more from Northern France.

Christopher Werth: At the port in Calais, one of the car ferries that run between France and England prepares to depart. Every year, thousands of refugees and illegal migrants try to sneak into the U.K. hidden under trucks loaded onto boats like this, or on the trains that run from here to London through the channel tunnel.

Mathilde Tiberghien is with the United Nation's Refugee Agency:

Mathilde Tiberghien: It's really dangerous crossing to the U.K. Some people die.

But for many, the situation is more dangerous at home. Ports all along the north coast of France have become the last jumping-off point for people fleeing conflict in countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. Many are often spurred on by false rumors about the ability to find work quickly in the U.K., and to access housing and education.

Tiberghien: Smugglers will often tell lies to migrants because it's in their economic interest that migrants cross to the U.K. because an additional journey means additional money.

Not far from the very boats he hopes will ferry him to England, a 26-year-old Sudanese man relies on the one meal a day he gets at this soup kitchen next to the port. He says he paid smugglers $3,000 American to escape the Darfur region of Sudan, much of it borrowed from friends and family. Like other migrants, he's expected to pay that debt once he settles in Europe.

Werth: So what do you think it's going to be like when you get to the U.K.?

Tiberghien: Oh, maybe I'll get a job there, maybe I'll get married there. All my dreams.

But those who do make it across find it hard to make those dreams a reality. Life in the U.K. is often harder than they expected, and asylum seekers can't work while their applications are being considered, a process that can take years. But as Tiberghien points out, from Calais, you can actually see the coast of Britain. And after crossing thousands of miles, it's hard to give up after coming so far.

In Calais, France, I'm Christopher Werth for Marketplace.